See Me, Hear Me, Touch Me, Feel Me

How to Use Brain Science to Win Consumer Engagement

Illustrated by Eugene To

It’s 95-degrees outside. The sun is shining down from a cloudless sky. You take a bite of ice-cold vanilla ice cream and are flooded with memories — childhood birthday parties, brain freeze from a thick shake, perhaps your own child’s smile after her first cone. Memories come back to you in one glorious bite.

Even in our digital age, we are still hard-wired to respond to physical stimuli. Over the course of human evolution, our brains were developed to respond to the world around us: sights, sounds, smells, tastes — all the feels. We’ve evolved to navigate our sensory information, even as we live in an increasingly digital age.

How do we bridge the gap between the physical and the digital? And how can marketers make use of what we know from neuropsychology to get consumers attention? We tapped neuromarketing experts Dr. Brynn Winegard, Dr. Art Markman, and Adam Alter to teach us how brands can hack the way we’re wired to drive deeper customer relationships.

Before we start: Just what is neuromarketing?

Remember when Pepsi took on Coca-Cola as America’s favorite soft drink? In 2004, the “Pepsi Challenge” asked consumers who indicated awareness of Pepsi, but a preference for Coke to try both colas blindfolded. The result? When branding was removed, there was a taste preference for Pepsi.

This watershed example of neuromarketing tracked the neural responses of consumers as they participated in the Challenge — using brain science to show that the pleasure from an anticipated experience might differ from the experience itself.

Neuromarketing uses brain science data from emotional, situational, and sensory experiences to affect brand perception and customer loyalty. How can marketers make use of neuromarketing today? Below, our 3 key takeaways from the experts.

1. Customers still need physical experience — even if they transact online

Despite the claim that our brains are being rewired for digital screens and the perception that younger generations are only shopping online, nearly 90% of consumer activity still happens IRL. Even the allure of shopping from the comfort of your couch doesn’t top the very primal need to see, touch, hear, taste or feel the products we desire — at least once.

Professor and neuromarketing expert Dr. Brynn Winegard explains the crucial effect of experience: “True to the consumer cycle, many consumers go online to do research, comparison shop, and read reviews as opposed to making a purchase.” But, she explains, “We see a lot of showrooming: where a person goes to a store to actually try out the products to see if they like it. Then they go online to find it cheaper and have it shipped to their house — people will actually do that in the store aisles.”

Consider digital-first brands who have made the jump from eCommerce platforms to brick and mortar showrooms. Warby Parker, Harry’s, and Casper have all learned that digital alone is not enough; experiential retail locations helped them scale. Winegard advises that even in the face of the digital world, there’s a need for the sensory experience of the products we buy: “Whether you’re starting or ending in the store, what’s ‘real’ for many consumers is still non-virtual spaces.”

2. The more unique the IRL experience, the stickier the brand

What was it you had for lunch last Tuesday? If last Tuesday was just an average day at work or home, you might not remember. But, if last Tuesday you took your partner to visit the new Italian restaurant down the block with the mouthwatering cavatelli that everyone’s been raving about, you might have a more profound recollection of the meal.

Assistant Professor of Marketing and Psychology Adam Alter explains the phenomenon: “The richness of real experiences makes them memorable; since the experiences themselves are richer, your memories are more robust and tend to be recalled more faithfully.”

Those memories just can’t be recreated in the digital realm alone. Cognitive scientist Dr. Art Markman argues, “You miss out on a tremendous amount of information that provides richness and context for those experiences, making them less engaging, less vivid, and harder to recall in the future.” From hosting concerts at Apple stores to recruiting bull-riders to perform in Walmart parking lots, unique or meaningful real-life experiences create positive memories that can establish or increase brand loyalty over time.

3. Social recommendations are the #1 way to connect digital and physical worlds

Remember that cavatelli? The one you had for lunch last Tuesday? The one that was so good you had to remember it? Chances are good that you found out about that restaurant from a friend — either online or off. This is because, Dr. Winegard explains, “Nothing is more powerful than word-of-mouth marketing. What’s brilliant about the online space is the ability in real-time to get peer-to-peer reviews and recommendations… brand marketers don’t have the same control they used to. Consumer voices are a lot more powerful.”

Today, we have more opportunities to connect, hear recommendations, and get peer reviews than ever before. But, what can start as a recommendation on social can seamlessly inspire a sensorily rich in-person visit which can, in turn, create social content that encourages someone else’s visit.

Social gives us the opportunity to connect our digital and physical worlds, closing the gap between our primal needs for sensory experiences and our ability to create and share meaningful memories of those experiences.


At Foursquare, we build technology that builds bridges between digital spaces and physical places. Our location data and tools help you understand your audience’s behavior as well as drive and measure the impact of digital spend on real-life visits.

Want to know how Foursquare can help you turn digital interactions into in-person visits? Email us. We’re here, looking for a restaurant with some good cavatelli.

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